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Ukraine crisis: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz seeks his role

February 11, 2022

Washington, Berlin, Kyiv, Moscow — Germany's chancellor is on a diplomatic offensive. But things aren't simple for the foreign policy novice.

Olaf Scholz at a press conference on Thursday February 10
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is stepping up his mediation efforts in the Ukraine crisisImage: Christophe Gateau/AFP

On his diplomatic tour, the German chancellor is repeatedly confronted with the fact that NATO partners expect much more from Germany than he has offered so far. But Olaf Scholz remains true to himself: Unperturbed, unimpressed, stoic.

The Social Democrat is sticking to his line of being unspecific.

"We are pursuing a dual strategy," Scholz said Thursday evening in the presence of the three Baltic heads of government whom he had invited to Berlin for talks.

Referring back to talks with the French president and Polish leader on Tuesday and the Danish head of government on Wednesday, Scholz said: "Further military aggression by Russia against Ukraine would entail very serious political, economic and strategic consequences for Russia." On this point, he said, there was "unity and determination."

Upon closer inspection, however, there are definitely different points of view. Poland as well as the Baltic states want to focus on tough responses and deterrence. "We are experiencing the most difficult situation since 1989," Polish leader Andrzej Duda said in Berlin.

"It is crucial that we strengthen NATO's eastern flank," Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda urged. "Our alliance must be able to react quickly and respond decisively in the region." 

Baltic countries are unhappy with Germany's refusal to supply arms to Ukraine. "To be honest, we expected more," Nauseda said in a newspaper interview. They have faced Russian troop deployments and flyovers for years.

As in Ukraine, Russians live as an ethnic minority in the Baltic states. The invasion and annexation of Crimea have always been perceived in the Baltics as a real threat to their own territorial integrity as well.  

Ukraine crisis: How reliable is Germany?

Germany seeking to lead diplomatic efforts

"We take our allies' concerns very seriously," Scholz reiterated at the joint press conference, pointing out that the Bundeswehr has had more than 500 soldiers stationed in Lithuania for more than five years already, as part of a NATO mission. This contingent is now to be increased once again. "We stand by your side, that is very important to me," the chancellor stressed. 

Estonia's Prime Minister Kaja Kallas responded by calling for "unity, determination, and strategic patience." Any sign of a lack of unity or resolve in the EU and NATO could send the wrong signal to Russia, she said.

Latvia's head of government, Krisjanis Karins, said his country was counting on Germany to take a leading role in "guiding the alliance through the difficult times." This was understood as a clear message: If Germany does not want to supply weapons, it should at least give its all at the diplomatic level.

Germany's refusal to deliver arms to Ukraine, due to its status as a "crisis region," has been met with criticism at home and abroad. Even under former Chancellor Angela Merkel, this policy met with little international approval. After all, German weapons manufacturers have been doing business with Egypt, Israel, and the Kurds for years. What's the difference?

Map showing trajectory of Nord Stream 2 pipeline

Critics have also noted with astonishment how the German government seems to try to keep the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline off the list of possible sanctions against Moscow. The pipeline, which runs through the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany, has been completed and is awaiting approval before going into operation.

In line with his center-left Social Democrat Party (SPD), Scholz long described it as a "private-sector project" and the approval process as "completely apolitical."

"If Russia invades, that means tanks and troops crossing the border of Ukraine, again, then there will be no longer a Nord Stream 2. We will put an end to it," United States President Joe Biden stressed on Monday at a joint press conference with the German chancellor, who seemed reluctant to give a clear statement.

SPD sympathy with Russia

"This federal government is unlucky to have just come into office when this crisis exploded politically and developed into a major transatlantic, Euro-Atlantic crisis," said the former head of the Munich Security Conference, Wolfgang Ischinger.

Indeed, the challenges to the Germany's new coalition government have been considerable. While the electorate had been impressed with Olaf Scholz's quiet, reserved and pragmatic style during last year's election campaign, a growing number of critics now say he is too quiet, and Scholz has seen his approval ratings tumble in the polls.

His apparent ambivalence is no accident. Scholz has to take into account many differing opinions within his own party. Traditionally, many in the SPD have a degree of sympathy for Moscow. In the 1980s, the SPD considered rapprochement with the Soviet Union. Some members of the SPD from former East Germany have connections with Russia that date back to a divided Germany.

Nord Stream 2 ends in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. The SPD head of government there, Premier Manuela Schwesig, has been working hard to secure the construction of the pipeline for years and wants it to go ahead, as does her fellow party member and ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a personal friend of Vladimir Putin.

Gerhard Schröder being welcomed by Vladimir Putin in Moscow in 2018
Vladimir Putin and Gerhard Schröder have long been friendsImage: Alexei Druzhinin/dpa/picture alliance

Immediately after losing the 2005 election to Merkel and her center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), Schröder pivoted to the Russian gas business. He is currently chairman of the shareholders' committee for Nord Stream AG, and board of directors chair for Nord Stream 2 AG. He heads up the supervisory board at Russian state energy giant Rosneft, and was recently nominated to the supervisory board for state oil company Gazprom.

CDU foreign affairs spokesman Roderich Kiesewetter sees the Kremlin's fingerprints all over the Gazprom nomination, describing it as "a move by Russia to create a divide in the German government with regards to Nord Stream 2 and thereby to discredit Germany as a whole."

But Chancellor Olaf Scholz has vehemently denied that Schröder plays any role in government policy.

"He doesn't speak for the government. He doesn't work for the government. He's not the government. I'm chancellor now, and Germany's policies are what you hear from me," he told CNN.

Scholz has justified his position by saying that Germany should not damage its role as a mediator in the conflict. He does not want to "lay all our cards out on the table," because "on the Russian side they understand: a lot more could happen, more than you think."

This article was originally written in German, and first published on February 9. It has been updated to reflect latest developments on this topic.

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